the scarecrow

He was my very favorite character.


I first saw “The Wizard of Oz” at some point during our time in Dodge City, Kansas… putting me at around age 5 or 6. A brain. It was definitely the best thing to ask Oz for. It seemed the most substantive.

Having children in public elementary school… it’s strange. You experience this very basic thing anew, through your children’s eyes, but your memories of how you learned, and what mattered most to you, cloud so much.

My husband tells me that his memory of school is pretty foggy. He doesn’t recall how he performed, what he liked or didn’t like, what motivated him or what didn’t… none of that until he was a teenager. When he talks about his childhood, he talks about adventures–like taking a raft, with a friend, up some little river, only to find later that he and his friend were lost (he got home safely), or about the model cars he built, or the paper route he had. When he talks about his teenage years, he talks about his trip to Russia. His college years: skiing in Vermont, and a semester in Tanzania. After college: the Peace Corps in Poland, where he taught himself Polish. (Have you ever looked at that language?)

Me? I remember every single teacher, who my friends were in each class, I can even visualize some of the assignments we had, the videos we watched, the homework I completed. For 19 years, from kindergarten through grad school, mostly in Wisconsin (with two months in Washington, DC. when I was 23, and three months in India when I was 10), school memories are freakishly clear:  I can tell you about every grade, every test score I earned. (It’s a boring conversation.)

I look at our kids and wonder what they’ll remember most: what they’ll talk about when they talk about growing up.

Our daughter’s favorite character from “The Wizard of Oz?” Toto. “He was funny.” And she doesn’t know this word yet, but he was “tenacious.” Our son’s? “I liked that Lion, he was cute.” And of course, brave.

Maybe this is a sign that our children have a foundation for that thing called “grit.” You know that thing, folks are talking about it a lot lately in some academic circles. Perseverance, dedication and commitment to a long-term goal, drive, zeal, passion, things that drive an individual’s long-term success — none of that is contingent on having a “brain.”

In our public schools, in the state in which I live, public dollars support special programming for students with demonstrated brain power. In our state it’s called “Gifted Education.” Students who have an IQ of 130 or more (or 120 if from a socioeconomically disadvantaged household) generally qualify, if they are first screened. In 2007, two-thirds of school districts in our state used parent input as a criterion for whether a student should be screened for the gifted program, and the gifted student population grew faster than overall student enrollment–which declined. Gifted education is a big deal for parents, as is funding for it (about $42 million in our district this year).

We’re also spending a lot of money on lots of tests of all our other students, establishing baselines, measuring progress in the aggregate, using those measures to grade (and financially reward or punish) schools (read: teachers) on their performance. It’s a conversation that is as boring as it is infuriating.

All this money, all these tests, all this effort: there’s not much conclusive proof of its long-term impact on any student’s life-long success.

If I were off to see the Wizard, I’d ask if we could re-allocate money spent on new testing and assessment procedures and spend it on school-wide programs designed to promote and measure “grit.”

But how do you measure it? How do you reward a six-year-old for continuing to try, with a smile on his face, to read a very hard book, because it’s about Star Wars, and he loves Star Wars more than anything? How do you document on a third-grade girl’s record that when she’s told she made a mistake, her response is to review her work and understand her error, like it’s a puzzle, not a burden? How do you prove to a school that a teacher has succeeded in uncovering a child’s passion?

Is any of this possible?

If we only had a brain…  Oh, wait, we do. We already have the power.

Clicking my heels over here. 

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